School & District Management

Levy Settles Into the Driver’s Seat In N.Y.C.

By Catherine Gewertz — May 31, 2000 6 min read
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Vast, struggling and chaotic, the New York City school system can be compared to many things—a Fortune 500 company; an old, lumbering train; a squabbling family—but only a man like Harold O. Levy would compare it to an artistic gathering capable of unspeakable beauty.

“My job is to be orchestra leader of this great, monstrous enterprise and make sure it sings,” said the newly chosen chancellor of the nation’s biggest school district. How is it sounding so far? “We are not yet at the preamble,” he says with a chuckle.

Mr. Levy is hardly your garden-variety superintendent. The first noneducator to lead New York’s 1.1 million-student system is a crack corporate lawyer in tasseled loafers, an egghead in love with philosophy and poetry, and a school leader who has never run a school.

But he bridles at the notion that such a background handicaps him, citing his years of involvement in education, from his days as a student member of his college’s board of trustees to just months ago when he was a member of the New York state Board of Regents.

“I don’t exactly come to this as a neophyte,” Mr. Levy said last week, one week after the school board voted to make his status as interim chancellor permanent. “One might fairly ask whether the best preparation to run, to administer, to be CEO of a school system with 137,000 employees and a $10 billion budget is to have been a classroom teacher.”

He admits there are days he wishes he had been a teacher, but he believes that using his instincts and intellect and the expertise of the seasoned educators around him will get the job done. The district is awesome in scope, and there have been days since he was named interim chancellor in January, he says, when he feels like “the steward in a men’s room,” tending to the legion of interests at play in the district. But he trains his sights on the larger goal.

“Teachers are the vessels by which we convey civilization from one generation to another,” Mr. Levy said. “If the education function is not performed adequately, the entire accumulated knowledge of humankind is not preserved.”

Distinctive Style

There is certainly much for the 47-year-old chancellor to do in New York, where test scores lag and more than half of the 1,100 schools are over 50 years old.

Before he was named interim chancellor following Rudolph F. Crew’s resignation in January, Mr. Levy was director of global compliance at Citigroup Inc., where he served as an international trouble-shooter and regulation-enforcer. In addition to his three years on the state Board of Regents, which sets educational policy, he chaired a 1995 commission that reported on the city’s decaying school buildings.

As interim chancellor, his focus on teacher quality and student achievement won over a skeptical school board. As the May 17 decision on a permanent chancellor drew near, all the other candidates dropped out. The sole contender, Mr. Levy won the unanimous vote of the board and the terse endorsement of Republican Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who had opposed his selection as interim chief.

Mr. Levy’s views on some key issues—he favors across-the-board teacher pay raises while Mr. Giuliani favors merit-based raises, for instance—are at odds with those of the outspoken mayor.

Already, stories abound about Mr. Levy’s direct style. He ordered janitors to clean up trash at the district’s Bronx headquarters. He slashed 30 volumes of ancient chancellor’s regulations down to nine. His most common words to his top staff at meetings: “Do it.”

But colleagues note that he reaches out to a wide variety of people for advice and entertains even his opponents’ views with respect. He smashed the hierarchical wall insulating the chancellor from front-line personnel, inviting the district’s 1,100 principals by e-mail to share their thoughts on how things are going—an invitation accepted by hundreds.

Watercolors and Poetry

He met with education historian Diane Ravitch, soliciting her views on what the schools need, only hours after an essay she had written, critical of the district’s summer school plans, appeared in The New York Times. Even now, their exchange continues via e-mail.

“I found him refreshingly candid, open to new ideas and not defensive,” said Ms. Ravitch, a professor at New York University. “That’s not what you usually expect from people in his position.”

On the Board of Regents, Mr. Levy was known as a consensus-builder. “He is a problem-solver. He doesn’t allow himself to get trapped in the unimportant,” said a fellow regent, Merryl Tisch. “But he is always very polite and very decent. He always thinks in terms of the high road.”

Some critics have grumbled about hypocrisy because Mr. Levy’s two children attend private school, a few complain that he thinks he has all the answers, and many people question whether he will be able to alleviate New York’s entrenched classroom problems. But so far, much of the feedback is positive.

“He has the right spirit, the right passion, and the right sense of urgency,” says Terri Thomson, a school board member from Queens. “He doesn’t need to be a trained educator. So much of solving our problems is common sense, and he has the right management skills to do it.”

Mr. Levy combines his management expertise with a restless curiosity and a devotion to children and the arts. In his new office, he replaced a sign banning weapons and spitting in school buildings with colorful student watercolors and a set of alphabet blocks.

He sent copies of Wallace Stevens’ poems to all the district’s community superintendents, saying he was interested in their “inner souls.”

Some observers rolled their eyes when he relocated a monthly superintendents’ meeting to Carnegie Hall, where the administrators took a violin class from virtuoso Isaac Stern.

Yet the novel session illustrates Mr. Levy’s penchant for creative, out-of-the-box thinking and his insistence on elevating and expanding the thinking of his educators.

Change in Leadership

One superintendent who attended the class, Michael A. Johnson of District 29 in Queens, called it “a humbling experience” that helped him understand his own students’ struggles to learn and rekindled his devotion to keeping arts in the schools.

Some observers say the ascendance of Mr. Levy, the first white full-time chancellor since 1983 in a district that is only 16 percent white, marks a shift in what communities want from their leaders. After a period that has included district leadership by black and Latino educators, the political landscape has shifted, said Dennis M. Walcott, the president of the New York Urban League.

“We have had people of color, and that has somewhat lessened the outward pressure of looking at a person solely based on color or ethnicity,” said Mr. Walcott, who is African-American. “Now, people are looking more for a person who is competent in carrying out the job. If that person is competent and African-American or Latino, that’s fine, or competent and white, that’s fine as well.”

Kenneth Wong, an associate professor of education at the University of Chicago, sees Mr. Levy’s style as consistent with a national trend toward civic leaders emphasizing quality of life and more efficient and effective management of services, including schools.

“This is a broad-based structural change,” said Mr. Wong, who studies mayoral and school leadership. “Mr. Levy brings in the kind of expertise and expectations that are consistent with the push for quality of life and accountability. He has a very pragmatic agenda that cuts across racial and class lines.”

Hopes for Mr. Levy are high. But with the average tenure of big-city superintendents dropping to less than two and a half years, skeptics wonder whether he will last.

Mr. Walcott of the Urban League thinks Mr. Levy’s inclusive style gives him a better chance than most for a long tenure.

“What he has done is touched base with a variety of educational, political, and community constituencies, which could allow him to carry forward in his vision of what the system should be for a longer period of time than any other chancellor,” Mr. Walcott said.

But he added: “Who knows? This is New York City. The honeymoon could be over at any time.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2000 edition of Education Week as Levy Settles Into the Driver’s Seat In N.Y.C.


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